Flexible working to the extreme: Dispersed office

James Knight, founder of Keystone Law, talks to Liam Ward-Proud about gaining acceptance for a new business model, and how dispersed working can cut overhead costs and realise efficiency gains.

Founded in 2002 by lawyer James Knight, Keystone Law brought an entrepreneurial streak to a centuries-old profession. Using advances in communication technology, including a remotely accessible intranet and instant messaging software, his law firm has dispensed with the traditional office-based model. Keystone’s dispersed office structure, Knight says, has allowed it to realise significant efficiency gains, with the company’s transparent communications systems cutting down on duplication as well as reducing overheads. He tells City A.M. how he achieved this.

Keystone’s lawyers have operated remotely since the firm’s founding in 2002. How and why did this come about?

When we started, most people in the UK were still using dial-up internet connections, and broadband was only just coming through. But it was apparent even then that flexible working was going to be possible in law.

Technology has been instrumental. Email and mobile phones obviously make it so much easier to communicate, but other things like the legal library have been transformed as well. Conventional law firms always used to have a large physical library, but such resources are so much more accessible now that they’re online and searchable. Nowadays, the most deserted room in most firms is the library.

A young organisation that uses technology is no longer disadvantaged. It’s actually central to what we do. For example, the legal secretaries have been replaced by Dragon speech recognition software. Our lawyers can dictate directly to the computer, rather than another person.

It’s often said that flexible working involves sacrificing something – whether it’s the ability to keep tabs, or business culture. Do you agree?

I’m sure there’s a perception that flexible working involves making a trade-off. But if the system is designed properly, I don’t think it has to be that way. On the technical side, our 140 lawyers are supported by a support team of 25 in the central office. Our systems make it very easy for them to communicate and get any logistical support they need.

But there’s also the emotional side of things. Striking out by yourself as a self-employed lawyer can be a lonely path to tread. Joining an organisation like ours, though, you get extensive opportunities to meet colleagues. They’re not all in the same place at the same time, which means we make extra effort to organise lunches and parties, doing far more than most firms do in this regard. Of course it’s optional, but dispersed business structures tend to attract a very outgoing bunch – our turnout rates are around 90 per cent.

Could you outline the systems you use and how this allows the dispersed structure to work?

Our intranet is called Keyed-In, which allows the lawyers to access documents and case details from the central network. We use Lync (Microsoft’s unified enterprise communication service for working across different time zones and locations), giving us tremendous transparency of communications. But then there’s also the central office, which is like the administrative glue holding all this together. And given how central technology is to what we do, it’s essential our systems are resilient – we use third-party technical support to help with this. From the start to finish of a case, this ecosystem allows us to follow all the same steps as a traditional law firm.

Did you have any issues when rolling out the technology?

Of course there are always going to be hiccups when you’re introducing new technology. But the first few years were actually more of an uphill struggle in terms of gaining acceptance for this new way of working. We were basically trying to change the business model of an industry that is thousands of years old. Bear in mind that this was over 10 years ago, and the people who liked the idea of a law firm with a dispersed structure were mainly internet companies. We initially anticipated a lot more high-volume, low-value work. But after three years, our consistent results led to a much warmer reception all round. Now our clients are more broad-based, and we find ourselves standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the traditional law firms. And it’s not just us anymore, the dispersed law firm is very much a growing movement.

What have been the key advantages of the dispersed office structure?

There are quite a few actually, but some of the most important advantages can be quite difficult to get across. We tend to talk about efficiencies, and there are obviously cost implications in terms of reducing the overheads from office space. But it’s not just about the headline savings.

The fact that there’s no duplication of roles (people delegate very effectively in a dispersed structure), and our senior lawyers are not involved in office politics, means they’re able to focus more on the cases at hand. Law used to be a very fun profession – lawyers could spend time getting to know clients, and getting under the skin of the cases. But most firms these days put a stultifying financial pressure on their employees.

Fewer overheads, and keeping all the bureaucracy in the central office, means that our lawyers are free from the shackles of administration. Paradoxically, by adopting this novel structure, we’ve managed to retain an element of what the profession used to be. And driving all this from behind is our use of technology.

First published on www.cityam.com